When it comes to high finance, college is only a click away. On the Internet, that is.
Thanks to continuing advances in interactive computer technologies, scores of junior colleges, four-year universities, business trade groups, and market-linked Web sites are now offering a growing number of investment courses for would-be financiers, business executives, and traders.
The latest example is Dow Jones University (ws2.dju.com), presented by the folks who bring you The Wall Street Journal. After going through an online registration process, you'll be transported into course work designed to help you become "a better investor and a better businessperson," says Ken Twining, senior product manager for Dow Jones interactive publishing.
DJU currently offers nine courses ranging from basics about investing to more detailed discussions of stock and bond markets, mutual funds, and tools and techniques used by professional market analysts.
Along the way, students can ask their teachers questions, share ideas with other students, receive special reading materials, and be led to lists of books and texts, all via the Internet.
Oh yes, there's no escaping it: Students also take tests.
"Courses are very affordable," says Mr. Twining, at $49 each. Each lesson takes about one hour. Students, however, can take the courses at their convenience by using a password that is good for eight weeks once the course begins.
Dow Jones is not alone in bringing the world of financial education to Web users.
A number of popular Web sites now offer courses in - or provide basic information on - investing.
"The most popular section on our Web site is the 'bookstore,' where people can order instructional materials," says Kimber Lintz, a spokeswoman for the Mutual Fund Education Alliance (www.mfea.com), a Kansas City-based trade group.
The Motley Fool Web site (www.fool.com), created by two brothers, David and Tom Gardner, provides a broad range of educational material on investing. One advantage: Their instruction, usually in the form of lengthy articles, is free.
Two individual-investor organizations, the National Association of Investors Corp. (www.better-investing.org) and The American Association of Individual Investors (www.aaii.org), also provide informational materials on investing. Many mutual-fund and brokerage-house Web sites offer finance instruction.
"These types of courses, of course, are not really college courses, although that is not to say that they are not useful," says Hans Stoll, a professor of finance at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tenn.
"Investors have always had access to books and tapes on various aspects of finance. These [Web] courses are similar to reading a book. But while they are helpful, they do not really teach you about the fundamental problems of the [stock] market, or about the real nature of investment," Professor Stoll says. "We have not yet reached the point where online instruction replaces actually coming into a classroom and meeting with a teacher over an extended period of time."
"It's not difficult to see what's driving" this increase in self-education programs on finance, says Richard Edelman, a professor of finance at American University in Washington.
"The shift from defined-benefit [traditional] retirement plans to contributory-benefit plans [such as 401(k) plans], as well as the coming to maturity of the huge boomer population," has led to a deep interest in financial planning, especially regarding retirement, Professor Edelman says.
Some 800 US universities now offer or are studying ways to start Web-based courses. Business schools involved include the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, Stanford, and New York University.
According to one analysis, just under 60 percent of two-year educational institutions, and slightly over 60 percent of four-year institutions offer distance learning courses.
These more formal courses, however, tend to be costly, sometimes approaching $500 to $1,000 at a major university.
The online courses, by contrast, are low-cost, easy to grasp, and, typically, bare-bones examinations of business-linked issues.
"But anyone who spends some time with one of these courses," says one academic, "will come out better informed about financial markets."
Points to ponder while studying online
*When taking a finance course or reading instructional material on the Internet, mentally filter out anything that promotes a particular product. Be especially alert for this on the Web sites of investment and mutual-fund companies, experts say.
*Remember, many Web sites implant "cookies" on your computer - electronic sensors that enable you to be identified when you ring up that site's computer. The upshot: You may not have the "privacy" you think you have on that site.
*Have fun with the Web-site courses. Many of them - the Motley Fool's site and Dow Jones University in particular - are given high marks by professional market watchers.
*Stagger your instruction, rather than take several courses at once. Once you've mastered stocks, go to bonds, then mutual funds, and so on.
*Consider also taking courses at a local community college or university. "Just about every junior college now offers finance courses, many of them inexpensive," says Prof. Richard Edelman of American University in Washington.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society